Midweek Update

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Delta variant vaccine front, the New York Times reports

The Food and Drug Administration is aiming to authorize booster doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for all adults as early as Thursday, a move that would expand the number of Americans eligible for additional shots by tens of millions, according to people familiar with the agency’s plans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s independent committee of vaccine experts has scheduled a meeting for Friday to discuss data on the booster dose’s efficacy and safety. If both the F.D.A. and the C.D.C. sign off this week, they will have acted strikingly quickly — a little more than a week after Pfizer asked for authorization of boosters for everyone 18 and older.

Under that scenario, any adult who received a second dose of the vaccine at least six months earlier would be officially eligible to get a booster as soon as this weekend. The F.D.A. is expected to rule without consulting its own expert panel, which has met frequently during the pandemic to review vaccine data and make a recommendation ahead of a regulatory decision.

Moderna is expected to soon submit its own request for the F.D.A. to broaden eligibility for its booster. But for now, every adult could get the Pfizer booster, according to people familiar with the planning.

From the Delta variant research front, the National Institutes of Health has announced that

Lung autopsy and plasma samples from people who died of COVID-19 have provided a clearer picture of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads and damages lung tissue. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health and their collaborators say the information, published in Science Translational Medicine, could help predict severe and prolonged COVID-19 cases, particularly among high-risk people, and inform effective treatments.

From the Delta variant vaccine mandate front, Govexec tells us that

The White House will not back down from next week’s deadline for virtually all federal employees to prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19, despite calls for a delay.  The federal workforce has until Nov. 22 to provide documentation demonstrating they are inoculated or to request an exemption under an executive order issued by President Biden. 

From the opioid epidemic front, the Washington Post informs us that

The U.S. drug epidemic reached another terrible milestone Wednesday when the government announced that more than 100,000 people had died of overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021. It is the first time that drug-related deaths have reached six figures in any 12-month period. * * *

The new data shows there are now more overdose deaths from the illegal synthetic opioid fentanyl than there were overdose deaths from all drugs in 2016.

Fentanyl is many times more powerful than morphine, leading to more frequent fatal overdoses. It is increasingly laced into other drugs, such as cocaine, and counterfeit pills, killing some who consume it unknowingly.

During the worst of the pandemic, more users were alone, reducing the chances that other users or bystanders could call first responders in the event of an overdose, experts have said. * * *

The number of opioid prescriptions issued by health-care providers has declined sharply as the crisis continues.

Addiction preys on young and middle-aged adults, who make up the bulk of those with drug-related substance use disorder.

Compounding the problem is the fact as related by Sam Quinones in his recent book the Least of Us that while a lethal dose of heroin takes about 15 minutes to kill a person, a lethal dose of fentanyl will take a minute or two to do so. That’s hardly enough time to administer naloxone which can pull people back from the brink of death. The FEHBlog wishes that Pfizer and Merck could develop a pill to cure substance abuse.

From the Open Season front, Reg Jones in Fedweek offers thoughts on how to use the ongoing federal benefits open season to the readers’ advantage.

From the No Surprises Act front, Healthcare Dive reports that

A key sticking point [stemming from the tri-agencies’ independent dispute resolution interim final rule] is the arbitration process, and how the qualifying payment amount (QPA) — determined by a plan’s median in-network contracted rate for a geographic area — is used to arrive at rates for out-of-network providers.

The Association of Air Medical Services filed a lawsuit in federal [district] court [for the District of Columbia, No. 1:21-cv-03031] challenging the rules Tuesday, claiming reliance on a QPA strays from Congress’ intent when passing the law that “no single statutory factor receives special weight” in the arbitration process.

As the FEHBlog previously noted, the Texas Medical Association has filed a similar lawsuit in the Lone Star State.

Encouragingly, Healthcare Dive adds that

The rules guiding the arbitration process are a form of consumer protection, 63 organizations representing patients, consumers, unions and employers said in a Tuesday letter.

An over reliance on out-of-network charges, particularly among Wall Street-backed providers, extracts maximum costs from patients, employers and health systems, thus driving up premiums and contributing to ever-rising healthcare spending in America, they said.

“As outlined in the interim final rule, it is only by reinforcing the QPA as the overriding and primary factor for determining final payment that the No Surprises Act can achieve the $17 billion in cost savings outlined by the Congressional Budget Office,” the groups wrote.

Amen

Also from the NSA front, the tri-agencies and OPM released an interim final rule implementing NSA Section 204’s burdensome yet aggregated prescription drug and healthcare cost reporting requirements imposed on health plans. The accompanying fact sheet explains

Summary of the November 17, 2021 IFC

This IFC requires plans and issuers in the group and individual markets to submit certain information on prescription drug and other health care spending to the Departments annually, including:

General information regarding the plan or coverage;

Enrollment and premium information, including average monthly premiums paid by employees versus employers; 

Total health care spending, broken down by type of cost (hospital care; primary care; specialty care; prescription drugs; and other medical costs, including wellness services), including prescription drug spending by enrollees versus employers and issuers;

The 50 most frequently dispensed brand prescription drugs;

The 50 costliest prescription drugs by total annual spending;

The 50 prescription drugs with the greatest increase in plan or coverage expenditures from the previous year; 

Prescription drug rebates, fees, and other remuneration paid by drug manufacturers to the plan or issuer in each therapeutic class of drugs, as well as for each of the 25 drugs that yielded the highest amount of rebates; and 

The impact of prescription drug rebates, fees, and other remuneration on premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

The IFC provides that plan sponsors, issuers, and FEHB carriers generally will be required to submit this information aggregated at the state/market level, rather than separately for each plan. To ensure that the Departments and OPM are able to conduct meaningful data analysis and identify prescription drug trends, the IFC further provides uniform standards and definitions, including for identifying prescription drugs regardless of the dosage strength, package size, or mode of delivery.

Applicability Date and Comment Period

The CAA requires plans and issuers to begin submitting the required information to the Departments by December 27, 2021, and to submit this information by June 1 of each year thereafter. However, the Departments have announced that they will exercise discretion to provide temporary deferral of enforcement with regard to the December 27, 2021 and June 1, 2022 deadlines, and that they will not initiate enforcement action against a plan or issuer that submits the required information for 2020 and 2021 by December 27, 2022. OPM also will allow its FEHB carriers to report information for 2020 and 2021 by December 27, 2022.

Comments on this IFC are due at 5 p.m. on January 24, 2022.

Before long, health plans, and especially FEHB carriers, will be spending most of their time reporting data to the government.

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